Zeitgeist and McDonald’s

Some words are just fun to say. Zeitgeist is one of them. It is also a wonderful word to use when talking about the mood of a particular time.  You buy your first MacBook and suddenly you notice all of these other people are carrying them around too.  There is something in the air. There was something magical about that place and time when several people in different places had the same idea.  It was uncanny.  It was the Zeitgeist!

Looking back to when Michael Thibodeau and I developed Narrative Branding, I can trace a couple of other people who were independently developing their own similar ideas about branding at that very same moment in time.  It was uncanny.  It was the Zeitgeist!

So I imagine that by now you are saying to yourself, what the heck does this have to do with McDonald’s?  

At the beginning of this decade McDonald’s was in very sorry shape.  Their business was falling apart and their brand was sliding down the slippery slope to irrelevance.  A few years later a remarkable turnaround had taken place.  Suddenly McDonald’s was a vigorous and profitable company with a strong brand.

We didn’t take much notice of it while it was happening.  Looking back I realize that about eight months after we publicly launched our Narrative Branding method to marketing, McDonald’s was making headlines by publicly launching their bold new approach to marketing which they called Brand Journalism.  It was uncanny.  It was the Zeitgeist!

Larry Light, who was the CMO of McDonald’s at the time, was the first chief marketing officer of a major corporation to publicly renounce the brand positioning approach to marketing. In the words of Larry Light and Joan Kiddon:

The “positionistas,” as I like to call them, are glued to the glory of an immutable, narrow, unidimensional view of a brand.  They believe that brands are simple, single-word ideas.  And once this idea is established, they believe that you cannot change people’s minds. This is wrong.  Brands are complex, multidimensional ideas, and you can change people’s minds.  McDonald’s is a good example.

This quote is taken from the new book that Light and Kiddon have written, “Six Rules for Brand Revitalization”.  It has just been published by Wharton School Publishing. It is essentially a book length case study of the McDonald’s story from the inside. And it is also persuasive evidence that companies can abandon brand positioning and actually perform much better.

Of course, it doesn’t take much detective work to see that Light and Kiddon are tweaking Trout and Ries by labeling them positionistas.  All I can say is that I wish I had come up with that word!

So there you have it.  Zeitgeist and McDonald’s.

1 Response to “Zeitgeist and McDonald’s”


  1. 1 naoko March 11, 2009 at 11:33 pm

    Your views are very refreshing. I’d be delighted to meet you in person and learn more about your opinion on the future of the ad/marketing industry and things in general. Please let me know if you are available. I’ve worked in advertising and am currently studying marketing research.


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